Handicapping the N.L. East's Surprising 3-Team Divisional Race

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Handicapping the N.L. East's Surprising 3-Team Divisional Race
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With the 2014 season careening toward its halfway mark, the National League East has become a surprising three-team race between the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins. Over the next few months, look for talent and missed opportunities to ultimately decide a riveting pennant chase.

Heading into play on June 19, only two games in the loss column separate the first-place Nationals from both the Braves and Marlins. Prior to the season, the idea of a race between Washington and Atlanta wouldn't have been hard to predict because those teams have won the NL East in each of the past two seasons, respectively.

Miami, however, deserves credit for surviving the loss of Jose Fernandez and carrying a winning record into late June. At the end of play on June 18, the standings painted a picture of parity and season-long jockeying atop this division.

While it's natural to focus on the wins and losses, take a look at the run differential marks and playoff odds, per ESPN.

Three-Team Dance: NL East Standings Entering June 19
Team W-L RD Playoff Odds
Washington 37-33 +33 64.9%
Atlanta 36-35 -13 24.9%
Miami 36-35 +11 29.4%

ESPN

Based on a far superior run differential (plus-33) and talent-laden roster, a healthy Nationals team is the only group in this division with the ability to pull away over the course of this summer. By September, a double-digit lead for manager Matt Williams' club wouldn't be shocking. On the other hand, the Braves and Marlins don't look to have that kind of ability.

Led by impact stars like Stephen Strasburg (10.8 SO/9, 2.42 FIP), Jordan Zimmermann (84.2 IP, 2.98 ERA) and Jayson Werth (.362 OBP), the Nationals possess the best 25-man roster of the contenders. If Bryce Harper can return from thumb surgery to provide a lift in the second half of the season, preseason predictions of glory could commence for a team looking to recapture the 98-win form of 2012. 

As the Braves get set for a four-game series against the division-leading Nationals, it's hard not to look at the 2013 division winners and lament the opportunity that slipped away.

Despite losing projected rotation members Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen in spring training, Atlanta jumped out to a 17-8 start. Since that moment, manager Fredi Gonzalez has watched his squad post a 19-27 record. To put that in perspective, Atlanta's .413 winning percentage since May 1 is worse than what San Diego, Arizona and Tampa Bay have posted for the season. 

After allowing the downtrodden—yet still alive in this division—Phillies to sweep a series at Turner Field, starting pitcher Ervin Santana sounded like a player looking for answers, per David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“A little bit frustrating,” Santana said, “but at the same time this is a team, and we play as a team and lose as a team. I know we’ve had ups and downs right now but we just have to keep our minds positive and play one game at a time."

Beyond the overwhelming talent evident in Washington and roller-coaster ride in Atlanta lies an upstart group in Miami. When Jose Fernandez was lost earlier this season to Tommy John surgery, expecting to see the Marlins fall back to the NL East cellar wasn't a ridiculous notion. More than a month later, one of baseball's most improved teams is closer to a postseason berth than last-place finish.
 

While it's easy to identify the Marlins as Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton and 23 no-names, the emergence of young arms like Henderson Alvarez (2.56 ERA), Nathan Eovaldi (3.76 ERA) and Tom Koehler (3.84 ERA) has provided solid innings and low-scoring games. With top prospect Andrew Heaney arriving to join the rotation, more run-suppressing outings could soon commence.

With an improved offense—led by a healthy, MVP-caliber Giancarlo Stantonon pace to score over 200 more runs (513 in 2013, on pace for 725 in 2014) than last season, the Marlins aren't a fluke. Although it's hard to imagine this team finding a way to 90 victories, don't dismiss the 2014 Marlins as simply a losing team. 

Which team will win the NL East?

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Doubting a tough, resilient Marlins team could be regrettable, but it will be hard for manager Mike Redmond's group to keep up all summer. In Atlanta, the Braves have the solid core and winning pedigree to stay afloat but may have already missed an opportunity to bury the Nationals early in the season.

That, of course, leaves the Nationals. Injuries could beset them again, but assuming reasonable health, the Nationals look like the team to beat in the NL East. With the best run differential, most talent and biggest expectations, it's hard to handicap this race without focusing on its most complete team.

Agree? Disagree?

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted and valid through June 18. 
All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

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